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THERE ARE NO BAD WORDS

Ninth Letter interview with Joseph Squier (2007)

“Watch My Feet” is an anxious, autobiographical meditation on race, class, privilege, and guilt. John Bresland, who is white, lives in Rogers Park, a Chicago neighborhood that is predominately African American. He wonders about his upstairs neighbors, Daisy and her grandchildren, a black family whose footsteps he can hear above his bedroom but whose apartment he has never seen. His internal dialog and good intentions take on a kind of quaint futility, never quite outmaneuvering the fear and paranoia on all sides of the conversation.

We were drawn to Bresland’s work because of the quality of his content and craft, and because he also crosses over into the literary world. The recent exchange below allowed us to ask about the various authorial hats he wears.

SQUIER: In addition to authoring videos, you are also a writer and you teach writing. What attracts you to the medium of video?

BRESLAND: What attracted me to video, initially, wasn’t video at all: it was sound. I remember hearing the great Joe Frank for the first time back in the early nineties, when he produced a radio show out of KCRW in Los Angeles called Work In Progress. These shows were monologues, mostly, beautifully written narratives that tended toward the surreal, and which I found mesmerizing. What immediately distinguished a Joe Frank monologue from, say, Spalding Gray or Eve Ensler, was the sympathetic resonance between sound and language. He layered his monologues with loops and drones and synth textures, the cumulative effect of which was hypnotic, like a Buddhist chant, like something taking place inside your own consciousness. If I've learned anything over the years about how to extend the reach of language through the use of sound—with its immediate, juicy, visceral qualities—I learned it by listening to Joe Frank.

What’s most pleasurable, for me, about working in video is its potency. Images and sound, unlike text, take a direct route to the senses. Even my mother’s Italian greyhound, when it sees another dog on television, goes insane with jealous rage. That dog image may have cultural freight and nuance that we humans can better appreciate, but it’s essential meaning isn’t lost on a dog.

SQUIER: What are the comparative pleasures and/or perils of authoring in video versus for the written page?

BRESLAND: With video, as you bring on collaborators—interview subjects, curious bystanders, boom mic operators, whatever—you relinquish some degree of authorship and control. And you subject yourself to the vicissitudes of your environment. Rain, traffic noise, the positioning of the sun. By leaving the writing desk behind, you force yourself and your assumptions out into the world, and more often than not, it gets a little messy. The quiet solitude of writing, with its ample room for imaginative leaps and exploration, gives way to chaos and chance. And your ideas and assumptions, which seemed bulletproof on the page, take on unexpected shapes in the real world. All to the good, in my opinion. Working with images and sound forces you into another mode of thinking, less contemplative (at least initially) and more reactive to your environment, more tactile, more physical.

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“Watch My Feet” began as a very short essay—if essay’s the word—about segregation in Chicago. I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I had to say on the matter. All I knew is that I thought about segregation all the time, because you can’t live in Chicago and not think about it. One day, while shooting various locations in the city, I found Derek, Quinton, and Tony. They saw the camera and wanted to know what I was up to. I told them I was working on a video project about our neighborhood. Then they asked why. I grew evasive. Because it’s not that easy explaining to nine year-old kids that the city they’re growing up in is aligned against them. I didn’t savor the opportunity to tell them that when they grow up and go to work, they’ll earn a little over half of what whites earn. Anyway, in the end, these three boys just wanted to help with the project, and I believe they did. By appearing in this essay they demonstrate, among other things, the most powerful aspect of video, film, or any other time-based visual medium: its ability to convey real human moments.

SQUIER: Can you talk about your interest in video as a rhetorical medium?

BRESLAND: I think there’s something in the nature of linear media like film and video that is inherently public. Maybe this is because the first movie I remember seeing was Rocky, in a crowded theater in Calumet City. Here’s what I’ll never forget: at the closing titles, after Stallone lost the fight and embraced Talia Shire, the audience broke into applause. I remember thinking, Why bother? Stallone isn’t here. He can’t hear you. But that music. Those trumpets! I think that was my first inkling that something projected and amplified can be shared among individuals and can transform individuals into a collective. And here’s the thing: images and sound are so seductive that they don’t have to rely on logic. They have the power to change people’s mood, sometimes radically, in the blink of an eye. When you change someone’s mood, you change the way they think. Advertisers understand this. It’s how they sell us all that watery beer.

When I wrote and recorded the raw material for “Watch My Feet,” I envisioned something that would be seen and hopefully discussed in public. Never mind that the majority of people who see this video essay will be alone in front of a computer screen. For some reason, that doesn’t seem to matter. Look at YouTube. What’s the first thing do you do when you see a video clip of something crazy and wonderful? You share it. You send the link to friends, to family. You want them to see it. You want to measure their reaction against yours. The viral nature of internet video is a descendant, I think, of that same energy and applause I witnessed in a crowded theater.

SQUIER: You have produced an earlier video piece called "Les Cruel Shoes" that is, like "Watch My Feet", something of a diaristic meditation on being an outsider (with another reference to feet). And another earlier video titled "The Seinfeld Analog" is also a highly charged critique of, among other things, intolerance, indifference, and American culture. Why are these such resonant topics for you?

BRESLAND: Because I think of video as a public medium, I gravitate toward those themes that affect me more broadly as a citizen. And for me, those themes involve our tendency, as Americans, to segregate ourselves on the basis of wealth. The facts of this tendency, to my knowledge, are not in dispute. The rich are concentrating wealth at the expense of the middle class and the poor. Complacency and indifference in American culture are rich themes for me because I see those aspects in myself. As much as I enjoyed watching Michael Moore go after General Motors for treating workers as a commodity, I’m more interested in the little things we do on a day-to-day basis, the petty diversions we create for ourselves in order to avoid tackling the issues that really matter.

SQUIER: Who is your intended audience?

BRESLAND: I lived outside the United States for a few years, so I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point Americans started using language so densely encoded that, for a while, I had trouble understanding what was being said. At some point we started using the word background instead of class. No longer was anybody upper-class or lower-class. Nobody was rich and nobody was poor. We had backgrounds. And no longer did people belong to a certain race. Race is a fraught, complicated word. So we swapped it out for ethnicity. And at some point we stopped being spoiled and became entitled. And rather than wielding power, we became privileged. And—this is reaching a bit further back—no longer were people black. They were African-American. Fair enough. I can appreciate the impulse to rid the language of pain. To identify someone as poor and black is painful in one way, just as identifying someone as rich and white is hurtful in another (though both tend to implicate whites). But I wonder if these euphemisms conceal a deeper truth that warrants our attention. As George Carlin noted long ago, there are no bad words. There are bad thoughts. And there are bad intentions. I suppose one intended audience for this essay might are those who view racism as a problem of language, of using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones. Racism, the kind most well-intentioned white people are guilty of—and I include myself, here—is a problem of inaction and unseeing.

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SQUIER: A list of the 9 most important objects in your workspace?

BRESLAND: ElectroVoice RE20. Mackie Onyx 1220 with FireWire. Focusrite channel strip and discrete class-A pre-amp with optical compressor and de-esser. One pair Tapco S-5 close proximity studio monitors. Bescherelle’s La Conjugaison Pour Tous. Viking Critical Library Edition of White Noise. A mac. A big dictionary. Snapshot of wife in wedding dress, standing beside her father in Death Valley.

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Image stills taken from "Watch My Feet" (2007) by John Bresland